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And here we thought we’d been on top for the last time.
The return of America’s Next Top Model is a bit like a Tyra Banks twist — exciting, but a tad more dramatic than necessary. After wrapping up its run at CW, the original incarnation was barely cold in the ground before it was resurrected a year later, rebranded, and sent to VH1. Can you miss something before you’ve had a chance to realize it’s gone? Sure… Why not?
Heading back to its roots in New York, the show opens with introductions to a cast of characters you’ve seen before: A southern belle named Giah, an African beauty named Binta, and a diva named Cherish who refers to herself in the third person. The focus stays primarily on the contestants, but it doesn’t take long for Tyra to resurface. She greets the all-female contestant pool, but she leaves as quickly as she appears, handing the torch to a new panel of judges and proving the ANTM we all knew is actually gone.
Rita Ora makes her grand entrance via helicopter. She’s plenty qualified, but how do you step into shoes as absurd as the ones once worn by the Tyra Banks — orator behind the “Be Quiet Tiffany” speech and executor of the most unconvincing fainting episode in television history?
At Rita’s side is PAPER Magazine creative director, Drew Elliott, and image architect Law Roach. But perhaps most engaging is Ashley Graham, who Rita Ora describes as her “sexy, curvy woman.” Ashley’s presence is immediately more engaging than her label as plus-size model. It’s Ashley who seems most likely to leave a mark on Top Model history, naturally taking over Tyra’s role as model mentor, critic, and friend.
In its first season, Top Model took viewers into the grittier side of modeling: Tiny hotel rooms, tinier changing quarters, and the unseen mania behind the runway curtain. The subsequent seasons relied on dramatics, primarily through the Tyra-filter. But the season opener uses its go-see challenge (usually a staple of final five or six) to caricature the worst parts of both. Designers who previously seemed rigid are mean in a way that seems harsh for even the fashion industry — and the dramatics are turned up to a 10. From contestants who establish day-one crushes to women who pick apart each other’s looks (Courtney, your eyebrows are MAGNIFICENT, girl), this year’s crop come across as bullish at minimum.
In the first judging panel, the women review their calling cards and go-see performance, and even though models like Texas girl Giah, androgynous Kyle, and twins Cody and Tash appear to be early frontrunners, it’s the judging unit that makes the biggest impression. Rita may be less outrageous than Tyra, but as a team, this panel of judges seems more cohesive than ANTM has been since its Paulina Porizkova days.
Rita sends the girls to an “exclusive party” where their names will either be on a list to enter…or not. As the original 28 girls are narrowed down to 14, the panel makes some responsible cuts, eliminating “self-proclaimed bitch” Quei as well as Starr, who’s more devastated from being separated from her crush Kyle than she is by no longer being a contender. But Androgynous Kyle recovers and joins the 13 other girls, including Eyebrows Courtney, Texas Giah, India, twins Tash and Cody, Justine, Tatiana, Binta, Cory Anne, Cherish, Paige, Krislian, and Marissa.
It’s absolutely not Miss J, Mister J, and Tyra’s world anymore, but it’s not supposed to be. This train is driven, albeit subtly, by Rita Ora now. If the show stays focused on New York, the women vying for the prize, and the true world of modeling, the end of this season might just look like a new version of ANTM from H2T — worth watching for years to come.